Last of the voices

Tomorrow morning cricket fans from around the world will tune their radios, whether it be via analogue, digital or over the internet (where broadcast rights will permit, perhaps) to the world renowned British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Test Match Special (TMS).

That endangered species, the cricket aficionado who follows the game on the radio by choice, (the purists will have the telly on, as they say in England, with the volume at zero level, and the radio on), and many in the crowd at the ground who will have their headphones on, will be greeted by the introductory song everyone knows so well. The distinctive sound of Soul Limbo, by the American band, Booker T and the MGs, a calypso-tinged theme with a strong percussion bias, will usher in the start of TMS.

The theme will fade, and a distinctively English voice will announce, “Good morning to you wherever you are, and welcome to Test Match Special from Lord’s…” There is no other cricket broadcast in the world that can emulate the TMS. Known for its excellent play by play commentary and wonderful description of the scene, TMS virtually transports the listener to the ground, as if on a magic carpet, with their light-hearted approach to the production.

It will be the commencement of the Third Test match between the West Indies and the hosts, England, at the most appropriate setting of Lord’s, the headquarters of English cricket and one of the most famous venues in all of sport. It is the end of summer, the series is tied at one-all, and the entire cricketing world is holding its breath.  Can this be the beginning of a West Indian renaissance?

In fact, the main reason listeners from all over the world will be tuning into this edition of TMS is because it will mark the end of an era in radio broadcasting of cricket, as it will be the last Test match which will feature the voice of Henry Blofeld.

Henry Calthorpe Blofeld, an Eton alumus, was a fine wicketkeeper batsman who made a century for Public Schools against Combined Services at Lord’s. At 17, he was struck off his bicycle by a bus and was in left in a coma for a month. Although he recovered well enough to gain a Cambridge Blue, Blofeld didn’t foresee a future as a cricketer, and became a cricket journalist before stepping into the broadcasting booth.

Blofeld, popularly referred to by his fans as ‘Blowers’, possesses a most distinctive voice and is immediately recognized the moment he takes over the ball by ball commentary. He has been a member of TMS since 1972, and is the final link to the age of great cricket commentators.  Over the years, listeners have been treated to an amalgam of his wit and charm delivered with a perfect pitch.  In a twenty minute spell of commentary from ‘Blowers’, one could be enthralled by the swings in the game, as much as the spontaneous description of the cranes dotting the London skyline or the pigeons on nearby rooftops or some incident occurring within the stands.

Blofeld is the only active broadcaster to have worked with the doyen of cricket commentators, John Arlott, sharing the commentators’ box with him until 1980. The stellar cast of commentators during his sojourn at the BBC  also included Brian ‘Johnners’ Johnston, Christopher ‘CMJ’ Martin-Jenkins, Don ‘The Alderman’ Mosey, Tony ‘ARL’ Lewis and Jack Bannister and  summarisers  Trevor ‘Boil’ Bailey, Fred Trueman and Geoffrey ‘Boycs’ Boycott. One would note the TMS penchant for pinning nicknames on their broadcasters.

Over the years, listeners’ letters, and later on, their emails, were read on the radio, and their wide range of questions answered by the expert TMS panel. Blofeld and Company will be best remembered for their ramblings on all manner of subjects, especially during rain delays. Blofeld, noted for his Panama hats and exquisite sartorial taste, even had one of his columns in The Telegraph on Dress Sense, reviewed with much mirth by his colleagues Jonathan ‘Aggers’ Agnew and Phil ‘Tuffers’ Tufnell during a TMS broadcast, who managed to keep the commentary going simultaneously.

Other highlights of the light-hearted TMS productions include the inevitable daily cutting, sampling and reviews of the cakes sent from all over the UK, (even the Queen sent one), to the broadcast team. The status of beards worn by cricketers is another subject often under review during the TMS broadcast. Blofeld’s contributions to these discussions were quite entertaining to say the least.

During the glory years of West Indian tours to England in the 1970s and early 1980s, before the arrival of television in Guyana, older folks relished the lively exchanges on radio between Arlott, Bailey, Trueman and Blofeld.  Blofeld was a great admirer of West Indian cricket, and one often got the impression at times, from the delight in his voice at the fall of a wicket, that he was even silently rooting for the team.

Blofeld travelled the globe, including the Caribbean, to broadcast cricket and came to be admired and respected for his love, enthusiasm and knowledge of the game. He wrote several books including Cricket on Three Continents, which documents the decline of the great 1960s West Indian side over three series between 1968 and 1969, and The Man Who Coloured Cricket, a detailed account of the Packer Affair in 1977-78.

Blowers has decided to draw stumps on his career as a cricket commentator, although he still has a packed itinerary at the age of 77, despite having had both hips replaced. He is the last voice of great commentators from the previous century, the likes of which include Arlott, the Australian Alan McGilvray and India’s Berry Sarbadhikari.

Perhaps one can tune in over the course of the Test match and listen to “the most distinctive voice of British broadcasting, sports or otherwise,” according to Jonathan McEvoy of The Mail on Sunday, paint the picture one last time of a Test match at Lord’s.


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